Saints’ defense keeping team atop the NFL
When New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees injured a thumb ligament in his throwing hand early in the second game of the season that would require him to be sidelined for up to eight weeks, the Who Dat? Nation collectively held its breath. The 2019 team appeared to be one of the best in franchise history, and after seeing the team dropped from the divisional and conference championship games in dramatic fashion in the last two seasons, hope for a Super Bowl run seemed to be put on hold.
While many argued that if the Saints could split wins and losses while Brees was out then the team would still be in playoff contention when he returned to the field, expectations have been more than exceeded.
The Saints have gone 4-0 with Brees injured. National experts, rightly, think this 5-1 team is one of the best in the league – maybe even better than the undefeated New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers. Because NFL teams play a 16-game schedule, every contest matters. We’re still in the first half of the regular season, but the battle for playoff positioning has been raging since Week 1. The majority of the season has yet to be played, but the Saints are currently positioned – if the season were to end today – to win the NFL South and earn a first round bye in the playoffs as the NFC second seeded team. Again, it’s early, and the team cannot rest on its laurels through six weeks, but the team is on track to achieve its preseason goals.
While much has been made of the way backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has stepped in and performed admirably, the Saints’ defense has truly played out of sight. In the last four games, the “D” has allowed opponents a mere 16.8 points and 312.5 yards per game. And those numbers are affected by the 515 yards and 27 points Seattle put up against the Saints. When the Seahawks numbers are thrown out, the team has held its last three opponents to 13.3 points and 245 yards per game. In that stretch, they’ve compiled nine sacks, two interceptions, two recovered fumbles, 18 hits on opposing quarterbacks and 17 passes defensed.
In previous years, the Saints defense has seemed to get off to a slow start before getting better as the season progressed. This year, the unit has been getting after opposing offenses from the get go, yet are continuing to show they are getting better week after week.
“For us, it’s about going out and executing the game plan and getting the ball back to our offense, and giving them as many opportunities as they can to score the football,” Saints defensive tackle “Shimmying” Sheldon Rankins said to John DeShazier of neworleanssaints.com. “Each and every game, you see us more and more locked in on certain things and keys to be able to win some of these games. I mean, as you’ve seen, two of the last three games have been low-scoring games.
“We’ve just done a great job of identifying the way the game is going and being able to understand that if it’s going to be a low-scoring game, each possession counts, every yard counts, everything matters. Or if it’s going to be a shootout, just being able to come up with timely stops in key situations,” he continued…. I think we’re trending in the right direction.”
Perhaps no player on the team is performing better right now than cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Tasked with guarding the opposing teams’ best wide receiver, Lattimore has been the quintessential “shut-down corner.”
Against Dallas, he held Amari Cooper to five completions, on eight targets, for 48 yards. The next week, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans had no receptions and was only thrown to three times in the game. Last week, Lattimore grabbed his first interception of the season, while limiting D.J. Chark to three catches, on seven passes thrown his way, for 43 yards.
“That’s my job,” Lattimore said in another interview with DeShazier. “That’s what I’m here for. I just try my best to make sure they’re not the reason that they have potential to win the game, so I try my hardest to stop everything that they’re doing. That’s really it. I’ve been doing everything right, everything is just falling into place right now.”
Still, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017, feels like he hasn’t reached his potential.
“I can be better,” he said. “I always want to be better than what I was a week before. So I’m going to try to come out and top that performance.”
The Saints will need another strong performance from the defense this week in their road game against Chicago. While Chi-town’s offense has resembled more of a grouping of teddy bears than ferocious beasts, their defense has lived up to the moniker “Monsters of the Midway.” Chicago’s defense has given up an average of 13.8 points and 312.2 yards per game and amassed 17 sacks, four interceptions, six fumble recoveries and a touchdown.
The Bears (3-2) are three-point favorites going into the game. That’s likely due to it being a home game, New Orleans’ anemic offensive showing last week, and Saints’ running back Alvin Kamara’s lingering leg issues. But the Bears aren’t exactly healthy coming into this game, either. Chicago’s quarterback Mitch Trubisky has been nursing an injury and the team put right guard Kyle Long and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks on injured reserve.
It’s looking like this game is tailor-made for fans of defensive football. It should have a lot of drama. The Bears are coming off of a bye and have had two weeks to game plan for the Saints, but New Orleans is on a roll and looking to extend their four-game win streak. There is no reason to think they won’t. I think the Saints are the better team, and their talent will outshine the Bears on Fox’s Game of the Week on Sunday afternoon.